In some ways, the Ellsworth Public Library is a victim of its own success. Its services are so in-demand that people come from out of town to visit. That has created what for many is a startling statistic: 62 percent of cardholders are not Ellsworth residents. Yet, it is Ellsworth taxpayers who overwhelmingly foot the bill to operate the library.
Frustrated by long-running discussions with elected library trustees about how to shift some of those costs, councilors took their own action last budget cycle. They slashed $100,000 from what the library had requested. Rainy day funds were used to bridge the gap as library officials sought more money from nearby towns based on a per-capita rate. The library instituted card fees for nonresidents whose towns did not pay up.
But, as it turns out, some of those other towns are less concerned with what is “fair” and more concerned about their own bottom line. Currently, 323 Hancock residents are Ellsworth library cardholders — the second highest of all outside communities. At Town Meeting in May, Hancock voters opposed contributing $11,970 to support the library. Their reasoning was that it would be cheaper to pay $25 for each Hancock cardholder than to pay a per-capita fee. Good for Hancock, not so good for Ellsworth. Other towns that have denied funding include Franklin, Gouldsboro and Orland. Twelve towns approved either all or a portion of the requested contribution.
The library has become a regional resource, but the city has little leverage to make surrounding towns support the institution financially. In cutting the city’s own funding for the library, councilors are saying other towns should pay up. But there is a greater, much more disheartening message: this is all the library is worth to the city. And that amount will only support the current staffing levels and services so long. Fund surpluses run out.
It is worth noting that both this and last year, the library asked for less money from the city than it had asked the prior year. Officials have been good at reining in costs, it is just the diversification of funding that has proven such a thorny issue.
Councilors are finalizing the city’s annual budget and will decide whether to fulfill the library’s request, match last year’s reduced funding or meet somewhere in between. They should choose Option A and every Ellsworth resident has a role in proving it.
The number of Ellsworth cardholders does not reflect true usage of the library. Moms and dads use their cards to take out books for their children. City residents who participate in library programs or sit in the parking lot using the Wi-Fi are not necessarily cardholders. Business owners count library users among their customers but may rarely go in themselves.
So, Ellsworth citizens, it is time for a show of numbers. Go get yourself a library card. It is the best deal in town.